Raleigh, N.C. — The chairman of the commission establishing rules for natural gas drilling in North Carolina said Thursday that he wants more details from state environmental regulators about why they turned down a federal grant to test water supplies before drilling begins.
The Division of Water Resources recently rejected a $222,595 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for water quality monitoring in areas seen as candidates for hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a method of natural gas drilling that has spurred environmental concerns in other states.
Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, spokesman for the state chapter of the Sierra Club, said Thursday that North Carolina is the only state in the Southeast to turn down such a grant.
"It just doesn't make sense for most people in general," Chicurel-Bayard said. "Here was additional resources to help a cash-starved agency do work that it's planning to do. One would think that the agency would welcome that."
DENR's state funding has been cut by about 40 percent in the past two years, and the Division of Water Resources is eliminating about 70 positions as it reorganizes after lawmakers trimmed its budget this year by about $2 million.
Water quality is a concern with relation to fracking because critics say methane and other chemicals used in, or released by, the process could seep into local water supplies. The federal grant would have helped establish a baseline for those chemicals in local groundwater so that claims of future contamination could be properly evaluated.
Division Director Tom Reeder said earlier this week that his staff could conduct the tests more efficiently than the federal grant would have allowed.
"I have not done a thing that would negatively impact the environment of North Carolina," Reeder told WRAL News on Monday.
He canceled a follow-up interview scheduled for Thursday.
"We were obviously intrigued by the report that the agency has decided not to pursue that grant, but in and of itself, that doesn't mean anything," said Jim Womack, chairman of the Mining and Energy Commission.
The commission is drafting regulations for fracking, which must be approved by lawmakers before any permits can be issued. Officials said they expect all rules to be in place by 2015.
Commission member Vik Rao backed up Reeder's position that DENR can handle the testing, adding that the panel plans to require drilling companies to pay for the water testing.
"We're very comfortable that that is taken care of, and I don't see the need for the federal government to pay for anything or the state to pay for it," Rao said.
EPA spokeswoman Davina Marraccini said the grant money has now been committed to other projects, so it's too late for the state to reconsider.
"Would that grant have even fit with what we're requiring oil and gas companies to do, or would It be redundant or unnecessary?" Womack asked. "I have some questions about the grant itself, and I'm sure we're going to get a thorough update on it (Friday)."
Chicurel-Bayard said the money could have paid for additional testers. With more work and fewer resources at DENR, he said, something's got to give.
"The real question is, what's not going to be done because folks are doing this work?" he said. "There's also a question of, whoever at DENR's doing this work now, do they have the resources? Do they have the equipment necessary to do the proper type of testing?"